Physician Sued for Negligence After Relying on Patient's Self-Diagnosis

Although Dr L did not provide the right treatment for the patient's burn, he did do the right thing in this case
Although Dr L did not provide the right treatment for the patient's burn, he did do the right thing in this case

This month we look at the issue of whether a physician can be liable for relying on information provided by the patient. As a clinician, it is unwise to simply rely on a patient's self-diagnosis without coming to an independent conclusion. But what if relying on a patient's report is necessary for providing treatment?

Dr L, 48, was a physician working in a walk-in medical clinic in a busy metropolitan area. His days at the clinic were pretty much non-stop, without much downtime, but he liked it that way. He enjoyed the variety of patients that presented at the clinic. While the work was exhausting, he found it challenging and interesting as well, and he was glad to work in an environment where he saw a diversity of diseases and injuries.

One day, a patient presented in the clinic with a chemical burn to his finger. The patient, Mr M, was a 32-year-old white male who worked in the industrial plant located a few blocks away. The clinic's nurse did a preliminary work up and then alerted the physician. Dr L grabbed the patient's file on the way into the exam room and did a quick scan of the nurse's notes. The patient had told the nurse that he had been burned with muriatic acid while working at the nearby factory. Dr L knew that muriatic acid was another name for hydrochloric acid, and that the industrial grade of hydrochloric acid is typically called muriatic acid.

Dr L walked into the exam room and introduced himself to Mr M. “I hear you have a chemical burn on your finger,” the physician said to the patient.

“Yes,” said Mr M, holding out his hand so the physician could examine the burn.

Although Dr L had the nurse's note, he asked the same question that the nurse had. “Do you know what you were burned with?”

“Yes,” said Mr M. “It was muriatic acid. I was moving a container of it and it wasn't sealed properly. Some splashed out onto my finger.”

Dr L chatted with the patient about the importance of work safety as he made a note in the patient's file about the nature of the burn. He then treated the burn, wished the patient well, and sent him off.